The Surprisingly Risque World of Society Painter John Singer Sargent
It’s easy to peg John Singer Sargent—whose best-known portraits are of stiff-backed children and elaborately dressed socialites drowning in tulle—as a fluffy society painter of the rigid late-Victorian era. To wit, the biggest scandal of his career involved a portrait of “Madame X,” aka socialite Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautrea, with a lasciviously draped dress strap falling onto her shoulder. (Gasp!)
But Sargent (1856–1925) was infinitely more freewheeling than his better-known works would imply. In the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, which opens on June 30 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a different kind of painter emerges.
“The show demonstrates that he moved very easily through these circles of progressive society,” says Stephanie Herdrich, who co-curated the show. “Many gay men, flamboyant performers, intellectuals, he was very comfortable with all of them.”
There are 91 portraits of just these characters in the show (along with another 21 drawings from the Met’s collection), which range from the famous—Claude Monet, Robert Louis Stevenson, W.B. Yeats, and Henry James—to random characters whom Sargent encountered as he bounced around Europe and North America. We’ve chosen a few of the most notable examples, the radical feminists and captains of industry and flamenco dancers, who present a neat alternative to Sargent’s reputation as a fussy painter of the upper crust.
The First (and Last?) Celebrity Gynecologist
The Parisian Samuel-Jean Pozzi palled around with royalty and wrote one of the first major textbooks on gynecological surgery. He was an early patron of Sargent, and, among other things, collected antiquities, sculpture, and tapestries. Viewers of the portrait, where the doctor lounges in a crimson bathrobe while fingering his lapel, will probably not be surprised to learn that he was also considered “a sensualist and an aesthete,” according to the catalog.
The Lesbian Supernatural Fiction Writer
Vernon Lee (a pseudonym for Violet Paget) was described by Henry James as “the most able mind in Florence.” A childhood friend of Sargent’s, Lee preferred an androgynous appearance and name “partly to further her career,” says Herdrich. “She had ambition.” She also apparently had ambivalence about the nature of pictures themselves, writing to her publisher “I hate the hawking about of people’s faces.”
The Woman Who Slept With the Prince of Wales (and Others)
The normally reserved Met Museum catalog has a field day with Mrs. George Batten, noting that “she lived life in the fast lane, becoming the lover of, among many others, The Prince of Wales and the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.” It goes on to note that she is “best remembered today for her long lesbian affair with Radclyffe Hall, the author of the famous and controversial novel The Well of Loneliness.”
“Let’s just say she was adventuresome,” says Herdrich. “Of course, we don’t want to be too sensationalistic.”
The Dandy With a Violent Poodle
Sargent’s sexual orientation “has been discussed a lot,” says Herdrich. “We don’t have any real evidence that he had a relationship with a man, but what we do have is his body of work.” She cites this portrait of the young, independently wealthy W. Graham Robertson. “This is speculation, but there’s an aspect to him that Sargent finds so appealing. There’s an attraction to him that manifests itself in the painting.” In his memoirs, Robertson recalled that his poodle, Mouton (painted here with a bow in his hair), would regularly bite Sargent during sittings.
The Beautiful Pianist With Too Many Neckties
Léon Delafosse, whose patron was Comte Robert de Montesquiou, was a celebrated pianist and composer and friend of the Parisian beau monde, including Proust. “Sargent was so intimately a part of these circles,” Herdrich says. “We think of him quickly dashing off society portraits, but he was deliberately seeking out these intellectuals.” Still, there was a question of accessories. As Sargent wrote to a friend: “Of course Delafosse is a decadent especially in the matter of neck-ties—but he is a very intelligent little Frenchman.”
The Wild Spanish Dancer
Born Carmen Dauset, the woman better known as “La Carmencita” was the talk of New York. Sargent would arrange parties specifically for La Carmencita to dance for his friends. He was only able to convince her to pose for him by “giving her jewelry to encourage her,” says Herdrich. There’s actually an extant video of La Carmencita dancing, which was taken in Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey and has been archived by the Library of Congress.
The Brother of the Man Who Shot Lincoln
Edwin Booth was a famous American thespian, best known for his Shakespearean roles. He also happened to be the brother of John Wilkes Booth, a man known for a different sort of engagement with the theater (he shot Abraham Lincoln in the head during a production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre). While John Wilkes Booth was killed in a burning barn, his brother went on to relative fame and fortune, as evidenced by what Herdrich calls a “huge” portrait of Booth at the Players Club in New York.
Charles Deering was an amateur painter who was also the heir to the founder of the International Harvester Company of Chicago. While he spent his youth traveling around Europe, he eventually returned to America to “take over the family business,” says Herdrich. Deering, who was lifelong friends with Sargent, had a massive art collection, parts of which he kept in a castle in Spain. This portrait “is relatively unique. It’s almost a formal portrait, but outdoors.”
The Tragedienne With No Time to Spare
There’s a reason this portrait of Eleonora Duse (known as “La Dusa”) looks unfinished. After Sargent finally convinced her to sit for a portrait, La Dusa, famously a rival of Sarah Bernhardt, got bored after 55 minutes. According to the catalog, Sargent related that she stood up and said, “I wish you a thousand years of life, glory, and many children, but now goodbye,” and then walked out, never to return.